Memories Once Forgotten

 

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I’m attempting to write an essay, just one freaking essay, about my time in Ecuador. I say attempting because I haven’t made a break yet. I jot a lot of notes, write little scenes in a notebook that I carry in my purse, scribble down random thoughts and flashes of memory, and I spend a lot of time thinking about why I want to write these essays and what Ecuador meant for me, then and now. Yet, at the end of the day, I have nothing complete, nothing even close to a comprehensive picture of my time there. So I keep digging deeper into my mind, desperately collecting all the memories I can and translating them to the page, hoping that the right one will trigger the waterfall that causes my essay to just, well, flow.

About a month ago, I was once again staring into space as I tried to piece together the blurry details of a distant memory when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to rely on my recollections alone. In fact, I had a wealth of written records of my time in Ecuador. I had my own Facebook posts as well as hundreds of Facebook messages exchanged between friends and family near and far, including fellow Peace Corps volunteers, my sister, close college friends, and Ecuadorian friends and students and love interests. I also had the long, detail-packed emails I’d intermittently exchanged between friends and family in the States, the mode different but not entirely unlike the longhand letter writing of my grandmother’s generation. And Gmail logged all of my chats during that time, capturing the banal and heartbreaking moments alike.

As I attempt to cobble memories of my Ecuadorian life together, I read through hours of random emails and chats. It’s a phrase that’s used too often, but sorting through these written records can only be described as an out of body experience. As I read those words, emotions that have long since vacated the sights and sounds still lingering in my memory came flooding back with full force. It’s bizarre, how blurry certain memories are, and yet these little snippets of time are forever frozen in the words exchanged through an unreliable internet connection spanning between Ecuador and the United States (or Facebook’s servers, wherever those lie). If I could find the palm-sized, 90s-era Nokia cell phone I carried during the last year of my service, imagine the records I’d have!

As I sort through these flashes of my Ecuadorian life, my thoughts span the gamut. In some instances, I am immediately transported into the moment, suddenly inhabiting my 26-year-old body again like a time-traveling character in a science fiction TV show, and in others, I am completely foreign to myself, unrecognizable in my culture shock and compassion fatigue. Over time, you can see the state of my mind shifting in the text; I have fewer substantive conversations. My correspondence is filled with the surface level, vague notions of what I’m doing and how much longer I’ll be in Ecuador. In these cases, the text conveys next to nothing, but I can see myself drowning in the whirlpool of my own emotions, too involved in my own struggles to perceive anything of my friends’ and family’s lives. The longer I’m in Ecuador, the bigger the gap between my understanding of their lives becomes and their understanding of mine.

At some point, I find myself thinking of Ira Glass. Recently, I listened to an episode of This American Life, fittingly entitled Captain’s Log, which discussed the hidden histories behind the random notes and snippets of our lives that we leave behind. In it, Ira Glass casually mentions that he and his wife  once had an argument via text that was so intense that his wife suggested that they delete the texts afterwards. She didn’t want any living record of the hateful words they’d exchanged, even though they had long reconciled and the hate had gone out of those words now. I thought that was strange—after all, who would be casually reading their texts?—until I started paging through all of these emails and chats. While listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the hundredth time, I finally notice a lyric that I had never truly heard before, despite my repeated listenings. In the song “Burn,” Eliza describes her heartbreak at being betrayed by her husband, then defiantly tells Hamilton that she’s “erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart. They don’t get to know what I said. I’m burning the memories, I’m burning the letters that might’ve redeemed you.”

On any given day, we snap off 140-character opinions and plaster the internet with pictures of our lives with little to no thought about what happens to that information years from now, when it’s buried in the depths of our Facebook news feeds but still accessible to anyone patient enough to click through all your old posts. And as I continue to write through this confusion and darkness, I can’t help but wonder: what will I make of all these words already thrust into the universe, these detailed records of my life that I was barely aware of? I can’t burn them, like Eliza does in Hamilton; long after they’ve been deleted out of my inbox or news feed, they will always exist on a server somewhere. So what becomes of them now?

Five Minute Book Blurb: The Art of Memoir

I’ve always identified myself as a fiction writer. Creative nonfiction, as a genre, didn’t enter into my awareness until I was a couple of years into college, and even then, the idea of writing it never occurred to me. Creative nonfiction was for those who had lived extraordinary lives or those who had survived horrendous childhoods plagued with alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, those who had built schools in Afghanistan or those with collections of exotic stories after traveling the world. It wasn’t until my last year of graduate school that I made my first attempt at writing my own true stories as part of a nonfiction class and started to discover what writing nonfiction meant.

Compelled by my experiences in Ecuador and a need to reconcile my life there with the high-paced American life that I live now, I recently picked up Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in an attempt to figure out how to render lived experiences to the page. The week before, I had settled down to begin unwinding the matted yarn ball of memories that is my Peace Corps life and realized that I had a multitude of questions about writing in this genre: What if the details are fuzzy and I can’t remember every event in a sequence of occurrences? How do I tap the mixed up card catalog of memories that is my mind so I can render the details on the page?  Is there a secret strategy for rediscovering memories long forgotten? How do I muster the courage to include the details that portray myself and others in a less than flattering light? Does writing nonfiction necessarily mean giving up all of your secrets?

If you’re not lucky enough to be one of Karr’s students at Syracuse University, reading The Art of Memoir is the next best thing to taking her memoir writing class. Citing her own creative process while writing her three best-selling memoirs and referring to a list of others that she regularly teaches, Karr explains the ins and outs of writing memoir, dedicating entire chapters to unraveling the thread of memory, dealing with difficult portrayals of friends and family, and defining what truth means in the context of memoir. The reoccurring theme that ties the book together is why we write memoir in the first place. As Karr points out, good stories don’t always make good memoir material; instead, she says, we write memoir to make sense of lived experience, to explore the details of our lives more fully and understand what it means in the greater context of who we are. Throughout the book, she dissects passages, line by line, from other admired memoirs, illustrating how any lived experience, if rendered truthfully and with emotion, can capture a reader’s interest. Multiple chapters also contain lists of practical writing strategies, and what many disliked about this book—the extremely technical discussion of the craft of writing—is what I so loved the most.

As I sit with my thoughts and memories now, I find myself weighing the emotional significance of each and reconsidering how snippets of my lived experience can be incorporated in a way that impacts the reader rather than just tells them a good story. Karr’s book also provides a good reminder as to why we write, even in the face of doubt and unpromised reward:

“Writing, regardless of the end result—whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed—means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world. And you do that by fighting for elegance and beauty, redoing or cutting the flabby, disordered parts.”

It’s an argument for revising, but it reminds me why I get up before sunrise every day to scribble down my thoughts, even when the words come slow and the work is frustrating.

Writers who are well versed in the world of memoir or who are looking for prescriptive rules on how to write a best-selling book will be unsatisfied with Karr’s book. If there’s anything a true writer knows, it’s that there isn’t a one tried and true method. For this nonfiction novice, though, Karr’s book struck the right balance between instructional and theoretical, helping me to reimagine how to approach writing about a complex time in my life and nudging me to finally put some words to paper. If you’re a memoir lover, you lose nothing from reading this book. At the very least, you’ll walk away with an expansive list of memoirs to study as you journey down your own path of turning memories into pages.

This is a great book to read if… you’re making your first venture into nonfiction and/or memoir writing, or if you’ve already begun and you just need a helpful nudge to get back on track.

If you’re interested in books that discuss the craft of writing, I’d highly recommend… On Writing by Stephen King, which also discusses the craft of writing in specific terms.

If you’re interested in a more traditional review…(especially one with an opposing point of view), I’d suggest this one by Gregory Cowles, who believes that Karr’s book is scattered and that her treatment of truth in memoir overlooks exactly what makes the genre so appealing: the formation and subjective recreation of identity.